Most people start projects with the best of intentions. It doesn’t matter if it is a school project or something for work or social media. Too often, unfortunately, those intentions get subverted somewhere along the line. It might be a case of “ooh, shiny” that sends us running off in another direction. It might be we get bored and realize the project isn’t going to work the way we want. Or it might, as I saw first-hand yesterday, be because personal feelings for one person in the project get in the way of good management skills.
In this particular situation, social media was involved. A group I belonged to started with the best of intentions. It was to be a place where you could gather with like-minded people to express opinions, talk about work, and bond. For a long time, it worked well. But, like so many groups on social media, it grew over time. When you get more than two humans together, whether in meat space or cyberspace, disagreements will happen. The key to managing them is to have rules and apply them equally. If you fail to do so, there will be fallout. It might not be immediately but it will happen. After all, people have long memories and grudges are held.
So, what happened yesterday?
It started in a way that anyone with a modicum of experience as a moderator should have realized could cause problems. Someone posted a link to something they had written. Nothing wrong there. The problem came when the OP said basically, “I know this is going to cause problems because there are so many X-type of people here but I don’t care.” Ding, ding, ding. Alarm bells are going off.
A discussion started. It wasn’t bad at first and then someone came in and posted a comment that called the article hysterical. The OP took exception and took the comment personally, as in claiming the person making the comment called her hysterical. Then the personal attacks began. What followed quickly were others in the group coming in and pointing out that the comment had not been personal and that the article linked was filled with misconceptions and errors. Then the attacks doubled down, especially from the OP.
The back and forth went on for hours. When a moderator finally showed up, sides were taken. Instead of telling both sides they were in the wrong and back off — or, better yet, closing the thread to comments — the only side reprimanded was that one pointing out the errors in the article. The responding side was told use of “hysterical” in relation to an articla was a personal attack but calling men “sexist” wasn’t.
I admit, I read the exchange and wondered what had happened to a group that had started out being open to ideas from all sides. Suddenly, it felt as if we were being told to march in lockstep or get out. I get being told you can live by the group rules or get out. I’ve told folks that in groups I moderate. But the members of a group have to be able to trust moderators to apply the rules equally, whether they are friends with one of the parties in a dispute or not.
I am not saying the moderators have ill-intent with this issue. I think they have allowed their friendship with someone blind them to what everyone else was trying to say. There comes a point in any group where the leaders have to make hard decisions — be it ruling against a friend, asking for help from others to moderate or stepping down as moderator. You have to look at what is best for the stated goals of the group.
The fall-out from yesterday continues. I know of others who have left the group, folks like me who had been with the group for a long time. The group will probably survive what happened yesterday but the moderators need to understand that yesterday put everyone on notice. Just because people didn’t leave, it doesn’t follow that they approve of what happened and how the moderators acted. It means that they have decided to stay and wait, hoping that yesterday and similar actions in the past are not repeated again.
Will that lesson be learned or will this become yet another group to fall victim to the good intentions gone wrong syndrome? I don’t know. Part of me hopes for the latter but the cynic in me expects the former. All I know for certain is I’m no longer a part of the group and I hope none of my friends still in it fall victim to similar circumstances.
Now is especially the time when we should be allowed to question the printed and spoken word, when we should be allowed to express our opinions. Should it be done politely? If possible but seeing personal insult where none was made is one of this country’s biggest problems right now. If you are willing to put yourself out there in social media and have an online presence, if you are linking to your work, you must be prepared for someone to challenge what your wrote. That is especially true if you wave a red flag when doing it. As moderators, it is our job to keep te discussion going and to apply the rules fairly to everyone involved. Otherwise, all your good intentions go for naught.